Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Turtle Stench and Propeller Rashes

Posted by Neal on March 29, 2007

“You know what I wish, Dad?” Doug asked one day. “I wish I had the power to reverse gravity, or make it go any direction I wanted, so I could walk on walls or ceilings.” He was probably subconsciously remembering M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” picture from our wall calendar a few months ago. (Irrelevant, but cool: Glen has informed me that you can see the picture rendered in Legos — or depending on your dialect, rendered in Legohere.)

“Hmm,” I said. “You need to see the movie Labyrinth.” I knew he’d like the Relativity-inspired scene at the end, and I wouldn’t mind watching Jennifer Connelly as a teenager again. So we rented it. A part that I had forgotten about was the Bog of Eternal Stench, which Doug and Adam especially liked. It was still on Adam’s mind a week later, when I heard him doing some pretend dialogue with some toy characters. One of them threatened the other, saying,

I’ll throw you into the Bog of Turtle Stench!

Evidently, the word eternal was a mystery to Adam, so with a little bit of folk etymology, he had replaced [itr̩nl̩] with [tr̩ɾl̩]. I wonder if he now believes turtles must smell really bad. If they don’t, then the Bog of Turtle Stench doesn’t make much sense. Still and all, a meaning that doesn’t make sense is better than no meaning at all, and hence the existence of folk etymology.

Doug has done some folk etymology of his own recently. As he was getting ready for bed one night, he looked at his thigh and said,

Dad, I think the propeller rash is coming back!

That would be the Henoch-Schonlein purpura rash that he’d gotten a few weeks earlier. I’ve told him again and again that the word is purpura, and that it’s Latin for “purple,” but it doesn’t matter. Whenever he talks about that rash he had, or thinks he’s getting again, it’s a propeller rash.

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